FORSYTH -- If there was ever an argument for the importance of a strong feeder system for a high school program, Mary Persons has it.
Like a year ago, the Bulldogs boast a senior class of more than 20 players. Unlike last year, however, Mary Persons is a team lacking in experience. The Bulldogs return just four starters from a team that came within a game of the region title for the second year in a row. And when head coach Brian Nelson looks at last year’s offensive production, every player who caught or ran for a touchdown has moved on.
“Obviously, there is no substitute for Friday night experience, and that’s probably the biggest concern right now. We have guys who have been in the system; we have 26 seniors again this year, but a lot of them have not played on Friday night,” Nelson said. “The one thing you worry about the most is how they are going to react to situations that are going to occur over the course of a 48-minute game.”
The Bulldogs won’t be short on experience under center. At the controls of their offense once again will be Jake Johnston. That game-seasoned experience figures to be a strong asset for Mary Persons as it breaks in new personnel on the offensive line and at the skill positions.
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“I don’t know if I feel much pressure, because I know the guys around me are going to work with me and are going to help me,” Johnston said.
Two seniors look to be Johnston’s top passing targets. They are Justin Stroud at receiver and tight end Will Bazemore, who played sparingly at quarterback last year. In Bazemore, the Bulldogs have a receiving option who has a strong grasp on receiver routes from his time as a passer.
“You like having your quarterback back, and Jake did a good job for us last year. Of course, he’ll have all new pieces to work with. Some of that has been worked out through the summer, and some of that is still being worked on,” Nelson said. “Those guys that we relied on last year on offense other than Jake are all gone. It’s going to be a whole new crew in there, and with Jake back, we’re expecting big things from him, as well.”
A strong running game has been synonymous with Mary Persons through the years, and Nelson looks for the Bulldogs to initially lean on multiple running backs to begin with until a front-runner emerges. Senior Jaquavious Sims and junior Zach Harvey lead that group.
“We have a lot of guys who have been sitting back there on second team and scout team and are champing at the bit to get out there,” Stroud said. “They’re ready.”
Mary Persons find itself in a similar state on defense. Junior defensive lineman Malik Herring and senior linebacker Brett Brewer are the lone returnees.
That will fill the Mary Persons lineup with players short on experience but eager to break through for the program’s first outright region championship since 1997.
“A couple of years ago, second was fine,” Johnson said. “But it wasn’t fine last year or the year before. It’s not our goal. Our goal is to win the region.”
ABOUT THE MARY PERSONS BULLDOGS
Head coach: Brian Nelson (29-8 in three seasons overall and at Mary Persons).
Assistant coaches: Jason Morrow (offensive coordinator); Pat Burdette (defensive line, assistant head coach); Robert Lindsey (outside linebackers); Lamon McElhaney (defensive backs); Dan Burdette (inside linebackers); Clint Ashmore (running backs); Matt Gordon (inside wide receivers); David Carey (outside wide receivers); Lamarcus Johnson (offensive line); Barron Hamlin (offensive line); Jeff Quinn (athletic trainer).
Offensive scheme: Multiple.
Defensive scheme: Multiple.
2014 record: 9-3.
Region: GHSA 2-AAAA.
Returning starters: Two on offense; two on defense.
Players to watch: Jake Johnston (Sr., QB); Justin Stroud (Sr., WR); Will Bazemore (Sr., TE); Jaquavious Sims (Sr., RB); Zach Harvey (Jr., RB); Caleb Etheridge (Jr., OL); Brett Brewer (Sr., LB); Tyrek Bloodser (Sr., DB); Elijah Hawkins (Sr., DB); Dre Evans (Sr., DB); Malik Herring (Jr., DL); Dan O’Neal (Jr., DL).
Aug. 28 Jackson
Sept. 4 Washington County
Sept. 11 at Lamar County
Sept. 18 LaGrange
Sept. 25 Perry
Oct. 9 at Howard
Oct. 16 Upson-Lee
Oct. 23 at Veterans
Oct. 30 Baldwin
Nov. 6 at West Laurens